Book one in the new Safe Harbour series, Annabeth Albert’s Bring Me Home is a sexy, tender and thoughful age-gap romance about finding what, who and where you’re meant to be, being open to possibilities and counfounding expectations. The set-up reminded me a bit of At Attention - not a bad thing as it’s one of my favourite Annabeth Albert books - the two leads are relateable and three-dimensional, there’s a well-characterised secondary cast, a strong sense of place and community, and a bit of mystery thrown in – which all adds up to an emotionally satisfying read and a very promising series opener.
Retired Navy Lieutenant Monroe has decided to get the old house he’s inherited from his great aunt fixed up and ready to sell over the summer. Having been an investigator in NCIS, he’s currently helping out the local – understaffed – police department with some cold cases, thinking about a career in law enforcement or maybe with the FBI, and has his sights set on moving to a nice condo somewhere in the San Francisco Bay area in the fall.
His best friend Rob is Safe Harbor’s chief of police, and it’s he who suggests that Monroe should get himself a roommate to help with the house – and of course, he’s got the perfect candidate in mind. His oldest son, Knox, is studying to be an architect and has come back to town for the summer before heading off to a prestigious grad school program on the East Coast, and he’s a dab hand at DIY projects of all sorts. Rob and his wife Jessica (Knox’s stepmother) are expecting another baby very soon (they have triplets under five) and Jessica’s sister, visiting from Australia, is currently occupying the guest room, so there’s nowhere, other than a small and dingy basement, for Knox to stay – and Rob feels bad. So he asks if Knox can stay with Monroe and help him with the remodelling in return for bed and board. Monroe isn’t keen on the idea, but asks if he can think about it. He’s driving to Portland to a friend’s bachelor party that evening, which should give him time to think of a good enough reason to say no.
At the party, Monroe spies a gorgeous guy – late twenties, striking and sinuous – and can’t look away. It seems his interest is reciprocated when the man approaches him and strikes up a conversation. It’s light, flirtatious and fun, and the dancing that follows leads to passionate kissing and an invitation back to Monroe’s room – when they’re interrupted and the guy has to leave in a hurry. There’s no time for Monroe to get his number.
Back homethe next day, Monroe arrives at Rob’s – having decided he might as well tell him Knox can stay at the house and help with the reno - and is stunned when the door is opened by… yep. You guessed it. The hot guy he made out with the night before is, of course, Knox. Rob will kill him if he finds out.
Knox is delighted to see Monroe again, but that delight is short-lived when he sees how uncomfortable the other man is, and when Monroe says that what happened between them was a mistake, Knox guesses his summer gig is off. So he’s surprised when Monroe starts talking about clearing out a room for him and Wallace (his cat), and pleased when Monroe quietly apologises for saying what he said… although not quite so pleased when he makes it clear that there won’t be any repeats of what happened between them the night before.
Well, we all know how that’s going to turn out, but I really liked Knox’s chill about it all; he’s very strongly attracted to Monroe and would like to pick up where they left off and see where it goes, but he doesn’t push, and tells Monroe he isn’t going to. They can work on the house together and be friends and roomies and it doesn’t have to be any more than that.
Monroe is... relieved. (Because that sinking feeling isn’t disappointment, oh, no.) Becoming involved with the twenty-three-year-old son (Monroe is forty-one) of his best friend is a huge no-no, so friendship is for the best. There’s no question he’s strongly attracted to Knox – not just to his looks, but to his confidence, his cheery disposition and his sincerity – but he can’t risk ruining a twenty-year-old friendship for something that can only be temporary.
But the more time the two of them spend together working on the house, sharing space, sharing meals and even sharing thoughts and dreams they’ve never shared with anyone else, Monroe finally has to admit he’s falling fast and hard for the younger man, and that he can’t fight the attraction any more. They agree to a summer fling on the down-low, even though they both know that what’s happening between them has already progressed far beyond anything casual. But that’s all it can be – apart from the likely problems with Rob, both men have plans that are incompatible with a future together.
I know large age gaps are a dealbreaker for some, but I generally like the May/December trope, especially when it’s as well done as it is here. There may be eighteen years separating Monroe and Knox, but the author does a wonderful job of showing readers exactly why they’re a perfect fit for each other, depicting their growing trust and how they make each other feel safe to communicate their wants and needs. Despite the age gap, there’s no sense of power imbalance here; Knox and Monroe are givers, people who are prone to putting the needs of others before their own, so they have to learn that it’s not selfish to let themselves be taken care of, to let themselves be vulnerable to another person. This is a relatively low-conflict story, and while some of that does come from Monroe’s concern that Rob will react badly to finding out he and Knox are together, most of the conflict is internal. Both men are at crossroads in their lives, facing tough decisions about their futures and finding it hard to let go of expectations - their own and other people’s.
The mystery element relates to one of the cold cases Monroe is working on, a woman who disappeared some twenty years earlier and whose husband was suspected of her murder – although without a body, nothing could be proven. This woman was the mother of one of Monroe’s high-school friends, and it’s already clear to him that the investigation was not handled properly, so he decides to take a closer look. This plotline doesn’t conclude here, so I imagine it will run through all three books in the series.
My main criticism of the book is that the romance does move rather quickly – ILYs happen long before the end - although that does allow plenty of time for the author to explore the ‘what’s next’ element of the story, and how Monroe and Knox work out what their HEA is going to look like. A minor niggle is the switch, in the final chapter, to the PoV of a different character – clearly a protagonist of the next in the series. I suppose it’s a way of hooking the reader in for the next book, but an Epilogue is supposed to be a conclusion of what has gone before, not the set up for another story.
All in all though, Bring Me Home is an solidly enjoyable start to this new series from a favourite author that more than earns its recommendation.
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